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Nearly all children with some form of autism struggle with social skills. A new study confirmed that many also have difficulty with an important motor skill: handwriting. NPRs Jon Hamilton reports.

JON HAMILTON: For Barbara Wagners son Austin, the trouble started when he got to first grade.

Ms. BARBARA WAGNER: He would have nights where it would take three hours to do homework.

HAMILTON: Austin was a bright kid. He understood the assignments. He knew the answers. Wagner says what was hard for him was writing them down.

Ms. WAGNER: He doesnt actually write like you or I would write. He draws his letters. It was almost painful to watch. It took that long.

HAMILTON: And Wagner says things got even worse when her son had to do written exercises in class.

Ms. WAGNER: This was something that Austin used to tell me all the time. Hes like, everybody else is done. And hes like, Im not done.

HAMILTON: Things got better for Austin, who is 14 now, when he was diagnosed with a mild form of autism. Thats when his school began to let him answer questions verbally or type on a keyboard.

There are a lot of kids like Austin who are on the autism spectrum and have trouble with handwriting. But scientists hadnt really studied the problem much until a group at Kennedy Krieger Institute in Baltimore set out to see whether kids with autism really did have worse handwriting than other kids.

Amy Bastian says her team got two groups of children to copy a sentence, then compared the results.

Dr. AMY BASTIAN (Neuroscientist, Kennedy Krieger Institute): We decided to start with a simple test, where you actually measure letters and you score letters based on some qualitative features.

HAMILTON: Like how big they are, how theyre spaced and whether theyre aligned. Bastian says they tested 14 typical kids and 14 on the autism spectrum, including Barbara Wagners son Austin.

Dr. BASTIAN: It was really striking how robust our findings were on this simple test. Kids really had trouble forming letters.

HAMILTON: Kids with autism.

Dr. BASTIAN: Yes. Yes.

HAMILTON: The handwriting issue on its own can be a big deal, but Bastian says its part of a whole other aspect of autism thats now getting attention, difficulties with motor skills. For many kids on the autism spectrum, she says, its hard to hold a fork, button a shirt or even play games.

Dr. BASTIAN: These are the kids that, you know, are going to get picked last for kickball. These are the kids who are clumsy, who have already difficulty relating to other kids, and the motor component probably makes things worse.

HAMILTON: Bastian says a lack of motor skills may even contribute to problems these children have communicating.

Dr. BASTIAN: You understand how someone else is feeling based partially on what theyre doing and how you feel when you do those same things. And so if you don't develop a normal motor sort of repertoire, then it may be harder for you to understand nonverbal communication from someone else.

HAMILTON: Researchers have only been looking at motor skills in autism for a few years, but theyve already found a range of subtle problems. And Sarah Spence of the National Institute of Mental Health says that could make it easier to spot very young children with autism. Spence did a study that found these children were slower to reach some key motor milestones.

Dr. SARAH SPENCE (Pediatric Neurologist, National Institute of Mental Health): Sitting up, standing on your own, walking, riding a bicycle.

HAMILTON: Spence says this new field of research may challenge some assumptions about children with autism who don't talk.

Dr. SPENCE: Some of those children may not want to talk because they have no interest in communicating. Some of them may have such cognitive problems that they really can't understand the concept of communication. But some of them may want to communicate and really just have the motor problem.

HAMILTON: The new research appears in the current issue of the journal neurology.

Jon Hamilton, NPR News.

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